July 30, 2018 / 6:29 PM / 16 days ago

Exiled Congo opposition leader Katumbi to return home for presidential bid

KINSHASA (Reuters) - Congolese opposition leader Moise Katumbi plans to return home this week after two years in exile to submit his candidacy for December’s presidential election, his political platform said on Monday.

FILE PHOTO - Moise Katumbi, governor of Democratic Republic of Congo's mineral-rich Katanga province, arrives for a two-day mineral conference in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo March 24, 2014. REUTERS/Kenny Katombe/File Photo

But both Katumbi and another prominent opposition politician, Jean-Pierre Bemba, could be barred from contesting the election, potentially easing the way for sitting President Joseph Kabila or his chosen successor.

Katumbi, a millionaire businessman and former governor of the copper-mining Katanga region, left Democratic Republic of Congo in May 2016, accused by the government of plotting against Kabila.

He was sentenced to three years in prison the following month for real estate fraud. Katumbi denies the charges and says they are aimed at preventing him from contesting the election.

“The general secretariat of Ensemble Pour le Changement informs the public ... of the return to the country this Friday, August 3 ... in the city of Lubumbashi of its president, his excellency Moise Katumbi,” Ensemble spokesman Jean Bertrand Ewanga said in a statement.

Katumbi also wrote to Congo’s civil aviation authority on Monday to request permission to land his private plane in Lubumbashi.

Government spokesman Lambert Mende said the question of whether Katumbi’s plane would be allowed to land was beyond his competency. Once on Congolese soil, he said, Katumbi would be “at the disposition of the prosecutor. Now, what will the prosecutor do with him? That I don’t know.”

Kabila, who took power in 2001 after his father’s assassination, is barred by constitutional term limits from standing for a third term in the Dec. 23 vote.

However, he has refused to commit publicly to stepping aside and some of his allies have in recent weeks argued that a legal technicality allows him to stand again. The deadline to submit candidacies is Aug. 8.

Security forces have killed dozen of protesters since Kabila overstayed the expiry of his mandate in December 2016, saying that elections could not be organised in time.

Bemba, a former vice president and militia leader, plans to return to Congo on Wednesday to file his own candidacy.

He was acquitted on appeal in May by the International Criminal Court of war crimes after spending over a decade in prison but Kabila’s ruling coalition says he should be disqualified from the race due to a witness tampering conviction.

Reporting By Amedee Mwarabu; Additional reporting by Fiston Mahamba; Writing by Aaron Ross; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg

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